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From Barnes & NobleBig Boss Man
Thom Gunn's acclaimed 1992 poetry collection, The Man with the Night Sweats, significantly broadened both his popular audience and his critical reputation. Yet that collection's contemplative, commemorative poems chronicling the catastrophe of AIDS in his community were so elegantly final, and so absorbed in questions of ending, that one wondered nervously what Gunn might do next. The release of Collected Poems in 1994 made Gunn's silence of recent years all the more deafening.
Boss Cupid shows how well this time was spent. The book is not merely an extension of the concerns and sensibility of The Man with the Night Sweats, it represents a further stage in Gunn's development. Raised in middle-class London, a graduate of Cambridge, and a fixture of the San Francisco gay scene since 1954, Gunn possesses a hybrid dialect, a formal style, and a viewpoint peculiar to itself. His singularity is perhaps most instantly discernible in his use of meter and rhyme; the complaint that "all the good rhymes in the English language have been used up" has met its match in the infernally ingenious pairings of lines like these: "Friends by the bedful, lounging on one sheet,/Playing cards, smoking, while the drugs come on, Or watching the foot-traffic on the beat,/Ready for every fresh phenomenon" ("Saturday Night").
But in Boss Cupid, these idiosyncrasies of style and substance are put to new purpose. Gunn seems to have reached the third phase of the famous paradigm Kierkegaard laid out in his masterwork Fear and Trembling: If the elegiacal, sober tone of The Man with the Night Sweats approximates the knight of infinite resignation, then the spirit of this collection is the knight of infinite faith, who, after having made due sacrifice, receives the world back again. These poems are more exuberant, mobile, and light, but their lightness is the lightness of a dancer, of the expert manipulation of weight, and not a lack of substance. They feel freer, not in the sense of being looser -- for they are, as always, finely chiseled -- but in the sense of a trapeze artist exploring wider and wider arcs. If Gunn's trapeze act is a performance, it is nevertheless accomplished at no loss of intimacy -- the poet throws himself into the breach. Although these poems take delight in executing daredevil wordplay, they never devolve into linguistic games. In fact, the pieces that best show off Gunn's mastery are the ones that are most "serious," such as those dealing with religious topics or with death. Here Gunn demonstrates how a tight wit and intelligence can actually enable empathy, rather than forestalling it by tainting a subject with irony. This is a rare and difficult feat, as exemplified by his consideration of the gay bathhouses of the '70s, in the conclusion to "Saturday Night":
What hopeless, hopefulness. I watch, I wait --
The embraces slip, and nothing seems to stay
In our community of the carnal heart.
Some lose conviction in mid-arc of play,
Their skin turns numb, they dress and will depart:
The perfect body, lingering on goodbyes,
Cannot find strength now for another start.
Dealers move in, and murmuring advertise
Drugs from each doorway with a business frown.
Mattresses lose their springs. Beds crack, capsize,
And spill their occupants on the floor to drown.
Walls darken with mold, or is it rash?
At length the baths catch fire and then burn down,
And blackened beams dam up the bays of ash.
Gunn's work is successful in this elaborate maneuver because of its innate generosity. It is generous toward the reader, equally distant from hermetic obscurity as from maudlin confessionalism. And it is generous toward its subject, generous with the unusually high quality of its attention. For example, in Gunn's laments for the dead, the deceased friend himself shines through, instead of being swallowed up by the survivor's mourning and self-absorbed meditation. Even when Gunn turns his scrutiny on himself, as in "The Artist as an Old Man," his gaze is clear and fair:
his own model.
Muscled and veined, not
a bad old body
for an old man.
The face vulnerable too,
its loosened folds
the earlier outline: beneath
the assertion of nose
still riding the ruins
you observe the down-
turned mouth: and
the assessing glare
which might be read as
I've got the goods on you
asshole and I'll expose you.
Perhaps the art most like Gunn's new work is Roman sculpture; a classical sympathy runs through the poems of this book, which exemplify clarity, beauty, balance, wit, and elegance. They are variously humorous, playfully sexual, mischievous, and above all, squarely human. Gunn might as easily have been characterizing himself when he wrote of William Carlos Williams: "His stylistic qualities are governed...by a tenderness and generosity of feeling which makes them fully humane. For it is a human action to attempt the rendering of thing, person, or experience in the exact terms of its existence."